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Trends in National School Lunch Program

Back in 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Act, championed by Michelle Obama, provided funding for free and reduced price school lunches and breakfasts, introduced a variety of new nutritional guidelines, and provided incentives for schools to offer healthier options.

The law went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 academic year. There was a fair amount of initial push back. A video from these Kansas students protesting the calorie restrictions has been viewed more than a million times, and other students took to social media with photos of the new lunches using the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. This CNN article from 2017 provides some background and also reports on the efforts of a large school food service industry association to roll back some of the guidelines.

The new guidelines may well have generated some positive health benefits for students who ate school lunches. But, how have these policies potentially affected participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)? Students are not required to eat the school-provided NSLP lunches. Students can bring food from home, go off campus, or find other substitutes at school.

I downloaded some data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). These data show that in 2017, 4.89 billion lunches were served under the NSLP, with 73.6% being free or reduced price and the remaining 26.4% of students paying full price. How have these statistics changed over time?

As the figure below shows, there was a nearly linear increase in the number of lunches served each year in the NSLP right up until 2010, after which there was a slowdown and then a slow decline.

NSLP.JPG

The effects can be seen even more dramatically by converting the data in the above figure to annual percentage changes in the number of NSLP meals served. From 1990 to 2008, the school lunch program grew every year. Since 2011, the program has gotten smaller every year except in 2016. In the six years prior to the law’s enactment in 2010, there was an average annual increase of 1.4% in the number of NSLP meals served, but in the six years since the law’s enactment (from 2012 to 2017), there was an annual average decrease of -1.2% in the number of NSLP meals served.

NSLP3.JPG

The data also suggest another interesting dynamic at play. Below is the percent of NSLP meals that are free or reduced priced. Throughout most of the 2000’s just under 60% of NSLP meals were free or reduced price. Since then, there has been a fairly steady increase in the share of meals that are subsidized. Given that the increase started prior to the enactment of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, it is likely that other factors (such as the Great Recession) were playing a role. However, there has continued to be an increase in the share of NSLP meals that are free or reduced price well after the recession ended.

NSLP2.JPG

These data show there are fewer meals being served that fall under the National School Lunch Program umbrella and that students who pay full price have increasingly chose to eat meals not governed by the program.

The figures presented above do not causality prove that the 2010 Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act led to the decline in the meals served under the USDA National School Lunch Program, but they are interesting trends about which I was previously unaware.

Diet quality, environmental impacts, and food waste

A few years ago when the federal dietary guidelines were being discussed, there seemed to be a growing consensus that nutritional goals and sustainable goals could be jointly achieved with a single diet.  I pushed back some on that at the time (e.g., see here or here).

I ran across this paper by Zach Conrad and colleagues that was just published in PLoS ONE.  The paper shows that there is unlikely to be a silver bullet diet free of trade-offs when multiple dimensions of comparison are involved.  Here's from the abstract:  

Higher quality diets were associated with greater amounts of food waste and greater amounts of wasted irrigation water and pesticides, but less cropland waste. This is largely due to fruits and vegetables, which are health-promoting and require small amounts of cropland, but require substantial amounts of agricultural inputs. These results suggest that simultaneous efforts to improve diet quality and reduce food waste are necessary.

Understanding the Impacts of Food Consumer Choice and Food Policy Outcomes

The journal Applied Economics Perspectives and Policy just published a special issue in which  agricultural and applied economists provide their thoughts on how we might help tackle some of society’s most difficult problems and challenges.  I co-authored one of the articles with Jill McCluskey.  Here's the abstract:

The food consumer plays an increasingly prominent role in shaping the food and farming system. A better understanding of how public policies affect consumer choice and how those choices impact health, environment, and food security outcomes is needed. This paper addresses several key challenges we see for the future, including issues related to dietary-related diseases and the efficacy of policies designed to improve dietary choices, trust in the food system, acceptance of new food and farm technologies, environmental impacts of food consumption, preferences for increased food quality, and issues related to food safety. We also identify some research challenges and barriers that exist when studying these issues, including data quality and availability, uncertainty in the underlying biological and physical sciences, and the challenges to welfare economics that are presented by behavioral economics. We also identify the unique role that economists can play in helping address these key societal challenges.

Other contributions in the special issue include:

  • "Agricultural and Applied Economics Priorities for Solving Societal Challenges" by Jill McCluskey, Gene Nelson, and Caron Gala
  • "Economics of Sustainable Development and the Bioeconomy" by David Zilberman, Ben Gordon, Gal Hochman, Justus Wesseler
  • "Sustaining our Natural Resources in the Face of Increasing Societal Demands on Agriculture: Directions for Future Research" by Madhu Khanna, Scott Swinton, Kent D Messer
  • "Climate Change as an Agricultural Economics Research Topic" by Bruce McCarl and Tom Hertel
  • "Big Data in Agriculture: A Challenge for the Future" by Keith Coble, Ashok Mishra, Shannon Ferrell, and Terry Griffin
  • "The Economic Status of Rural America in the President Trump Era and beyond" by Stephan Goetz, Mark Partridge, Heather Stephens
  • "Food Insecurity Research in the United States: Where We Have Been and Where We Need to Go" by Craig Gundersen and James Ziliak
  • "The Farm Economy: Future Research and Education Priorities" by Allen Featherstone
  • "A Research Agenda for International Agricultural Trade" by Will Martin
  • "Energy Economics" by Wally Tyner, and Nisal Herath

Inequalities of Fat Taxes and Thin Subsidies

I was excited to see The Economist ran an article on my paper with Laurent Muller, Anne Lacroix, and Bernard Ruffieux, which appeared in the Economic Journal.  In typical Economist fashion, they didn't mention us by name, but here's their summary of our findings:

The study found that the taxes and subsidies actually widened health and fiscal inequalities. Fat taxes meant the women on lower incomes paid disproportionately more for food—their habits changed less. They preferred to buy food they liked rather than what made nutritional sense. Taxing the food they eat most made the poor poorer.

Subsidies encouraged all income groups to buy more fruit and vegetables. But those on higher incomes proved more responsive and so benefited most. Interestingly, richer folk were also more likely to buy the subsidised healthy food and then spend the savings they had accrued on yet more healthy food. But poorer women, if they responded to lower prices, often used the money saved to buy unhealthy items or something else entirely. Once the nutritional price policies were applied, the average share of budget spent on healthy food actually increased for the better-off.

Does a Good Diet Guarantee Good Health?

To be sure, dietary factors contribute to bad health at least some of the time for some people.  But, how large a role does diet play?  Stated differently: even if you eat well all the time, are you guaranteed to be free of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes?  Far from it according to two recent studies.  

The first was published Friday in Science by Tomasetti, Li, and Vogelstein, who investigated cancer causes.  When discussing the things that can cause cancer, causes normally fall into one of two broad categories: nature (environmental factors) or nurture (inherited genetic factors).  These authors, however, point to a third factor: as we grow, our cells naturally replicate themselves, and in the process, unavoidable DNA replication errors occur which ultimately lead to cancer.  The authors calculate that these replication errors or  

mutations are responsible for two-thirds of the mutations in human cancers.

Secondly, I ran across this interesting paper published a couple weeks ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The authors attempted to ferret out how many deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (what the authors call "cardiometabolic deaths") that result each year annually come about from over- or under-consumption of certain types of foods.  As this critic pointed out, it is important to note that the authors estimates are associations/correlations NOT causation.  As such, I'd suggest caution in placing too much interpretation on the impacts from different types of food.  Nonetheless, there were a couple of other less-well-publicized results which I found interesting.

First, the authors found:

In 2012, suboptimal intake of dietary factors was associated with an estimated 318 656 cardiometabolic deaths, representing 45.4% of cardiometabolic deaths.

Stated differently, 54.6% of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes seems to be caused by something other than diet.   

The other result that I found interesting from this study is that there has been a big decline in so-called cardiometabolic deaths.  The authors write:

Between 2002 and 2012, population-adjusted US cardiometabolic deaths per year decreased by 26.5%.

Some of this decline, they argue, is due to reduced sugar consumption and increased nut/seed consumption from 2002 to 2012.

Why does all this matter?  Because these statistics help us understand the impacts of dietary and lifestyle changes.  To illustrate, let's take the above cancer statistic: 66.7% of cancers are caused by unavoidable replication errors. That leaves 33.3% of cancers, some of which are diet and lifestyle related and some of which are caused by inherited genetic factors.  For sake of simplicity, lets say you have zero risk from inherited genetic factors. Also note that the National Cancer Institute suggests that the chances of getting a new cancer in a given year are 454.8 per 100,000 people (or a 0.45% chance).  

Putting it all together, your chance of getting cancer from random errors in DNA replication is 0.667*0.45%=0.30%, and your chance of getting cancer from diet and lifestyle factors (assuming no inherited risks) is 0.333*0.45%=0.15%.  So, even if you could completely eliminate the cancer risk from diet and lifestyle factors, you'd go from a 0.45% chance of getting a new cancer to a 0.30% chance, a reduction of 0.15 percentage points.